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Irving Herschel Koven.

Courtesy of family

Irving Herschel Koven: Surgeon. Musician. Educator. Renaissance man. Born July 29, 1928, in Grand Falls, N.B.; died May 16, 2020, Toronto, of a cardiovascular event; aged 91.

Near the end of his life, with family at his side, Irv Koven would often stare pensively into the distance as he smoked his cigar. Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he’d smile and say: “We have come a long way from the small town of Grand Falls, New Brunswick.”

Irving and his three siblings were one of two Jewish families in town. Every Friday, kosher meat was delivered by Canadian Pacific train. He learned to play piano at 7. He was mostly self-taught, though he attended music classes at the local convent one day a week, and accompanied his father, who played the mandolin. At 15, he moved to Montreal to attend Westmount High and began playing in a jazz trio.

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In 1945, he attended Mount Allison University, and completed a bachelor of arts degree before he applied to medical school. He graduated in 1954 from Dalhousie Medical School with one summer spent in Plaster Rock, N.B., suturing the many lacerations of lumbermen.

Florence Epstein was a nursing student at the Halifax Infirmary affiliated with Irv’s medical school. He was lovestruck by Flossie the moment he saw her and in 1954 the couple married in Cape Breton, before moving to Boston. Here, Irv did his surgical residency and Flossie worked as a nurse until their son Robert was born. In 1956, the family moved to Toronto, where Irv continued his training at Mount Sinai Hospital and became a highly respected and gifted surgeon. Three more children, Laurie, Jeff and Steve, arrived.

Irv’s sense of humour filled his home with stories, jokes and laughter. He was always fixing something around the house, reading and learning (he would earn his master of education from the University of Toronto at the age of 65).

He built his family a ski chalet at Beaver Valley in 1968, which featured his detailed cabinetry work, fancy wood-window framing, a homemade pull-out sofa and a kitchen table made from a door. The family spent almost every weekend at the chalet. He taught his children to ski, to see the world with the glass always half full, to enjoy life’s gifts and to treasure people and family.

Irv and Flossie often entertained surgical residents, friends and family at home, with singing around the piano after dinner. But Irv also savoured the tranquillity and camaraderie of fly fishing and every year, for 20 years, he returned to the Miramichi River. He shared this passion with his children.

Irv played piano in Toronto bars and restaurants, including the Windsor Arms hotel, where he was dubbed: “the cigar-smoking, martini-drinking, piano-playing cancer surgeon.” In 1991, he was invited by the China Orient Express to be the train’s doctor during a trip through the Silk Road regions, but he quickly became the piano-playing doc.

Irv practised general surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital until his retirement in 2006 and was an associate professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto and a consultant surgeon at Baycrest Centre. (After retiring, he volunteered at Baycrest and played piano on the palliative floor. He performed until the last few months of his life.)

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Irv was a dreamer and often philosophical. He could speak on many topics and wrote two self-published books on his father’s life and on his own. He appreciated being alive and embraced the changes that came with time passing.

The 1954 yearbook from his doctor of medicine at Dalhousie captured his enduring character: “He was the dynamo of our class.”

Laurie Bernick, Robert, Jeff and Steve Koven are Irv’s children.

To submit a Lives Lived: lives@globeandmail.com

Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go to tgam.ca/livesguide.

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